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France still seeking Executive Life deal

PARIS, Dec 4 (AFP) – France remains open to a settlement with US prosecutors on the contested takeover of California insurance company, but only if it covers all French individuals involved, Finance Minister Francis Mer said Thursday.

“We still desire a friendly, global accord. We regret that one hasn’t been concluded yet,” Mer told the French daily Le Parisien.

Mer’s statement follows tough talking by Paris that it is ready for a court showdown after the collapse Tuesday of talks about settling a long-simmering legal row sparked by US allegations that French bank Credit Lyonnais, then state-owned, illegally acquired the failed California insurance company Executive Life in 1993.

The talks in Los Angeles, which dragged on for weeks despite repeated deadlines, foundered on French insistance that an overall settlement provide a degree of legal protection for prominent implicated French individuals, including Francois Pinault, head of the Artemis holding company,

Mer insisted that a deal must include all French figures.”We couldn’t conclude such a costly deal if US legal authorities reserved the right to exclude certain people,” he said.

US prosecutors contend that Credit Lyonnais managed to buy Executive Life through French insurer Maaf, thereby illegally concealing the bank’s involvement in the transaction.

US law at the time prevented banks from owning more than 25 percent of an insurer.

Pinault, a prominent French billionnaire and friend of President Jacques Chirac, later acquired Executive Life and re-named it Aurora.

With the parties unable to agree on the inclusion of Pinault, US prosecutors Tuesday said they would press ahead with a criminal probe.

A draft agreement, turned down by France in September, called for a fine of USD 585 million (EUR 486 million), of which the French government would be responsible for 475 million dollars, Credit Lyonnais 100 million and the French insurer MAAF, 10 million.

That accord was spurned by Paris because it included neither Pinault and Artemis nor former Credit Lyonnais chairman Jean Peyrelevade, suspected by US authorities of having been aware of the illegal nature of the bank’s takeover of Executive Life.

Pinault, granted immunity from prosecution in the United States in 1998, could nonetheless face heavy criminal and civil fines in connection with the case.

Peyrelevade has consistently maintained his innocence in the affair, insisting he was only made aware of problems with the transaction well after its completion.


                                                                Subject: French news